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Antioch Survives -- at What Price?

November 5, 2007

Following an outpouring of anger over the order to suspend Antioch College's operations -- and an outpouring of donations to avoid the suspension -- Antioch University's board on Saturday announced it was lifting the suspension order.

The announcement followed weeks of intense discussions between the university's board and administration and the alumni association of the college -- which has played a historic role in American higher education, but which has struggled financially for years. Under the agreement between the alumni and the university, the alumni must come through with key financial contributions to keep the college operating. In addition, the alumni are going on record accepting that the college is in a state of financial exigency, that faculty and staff reductions will be necessary, and that some programs will be curtailed.

In a sign of how fragile the situation remains, the agreements announced by the college focus on continuing Antioch courses for current students and there are no plans to recruit a new freshman class to enroll in the fall. In an interview Sunday, a university spokeswoman said that new freshmen would not be recruited until the curriculum was revised and facilities were substantially improved -- a process that will take at least a year and could take longer.

These and other details about the plan -- which were not the focus of Antioch's public statements -- have some students and alumni questioning whether the plan represents a viable way to preserve the college. Generally, those who are the most skeptical are among those who haven't trusted the university's trustees or chancellor for some time, viewing them as responsible for the crisis facing the college.

Nonetheless, the shift on Saturday represents a dramatic reversal. In June, the university's board announced that the college would suspend operations after this academic year and would not re-open until 2012. At the time, trustees said that they had no choice, and that the college lacked the funds to operate responsibly.

The college, on a campus designed for 2,700, was expecting only about 300 students this fall. Antioch was ahead of the times in combining liberal arts education with "co-op" education in which students worked at jobs all over the country. It was also early to embrace the civil rights movement, numerous social causes (of the left) and the idea that students should play a key role in setting the direction of their education.

In the past few decades, the university has opened campuses all over the country -- focused on graduate and professional education. The university's leaders see these campuses as vital to spreading Antioch's style of education and serving more students. But many of the students and alumni of the college believe that the focus of the university leaders long ago left the Yellow Springs, Ohio main campus -- and that failure to protect that campus's independence is at the root of its problems.

The announcement from the university board Saturday appeared intended to reassure the college's supporters in some ways, while also not backing away from the board's fundamental view of the college's situation. The statement, for example, pledged that the college would continue "in its historic core values and mission" as a residential, liberal arts colleges "committed to the principles of academic freedom and tenure." In addition, the statement expresses a commitment to creating a new board for the college, which would work with the university board.

But the announcement also suggested support from alumni leaders for the board's decision to declare financial exigency (which permits layoffs of tenured faculty members, among other steps) and the board affirmed its support for Chancellor Toni Murdock -- who has been the subject of intense criticism and two no confidence votes.

The deal to avoid suspension followed weeks of talks between alumni board leaders of the college and university trustees. Both sides issued statements in which they praised the spirit of collaboration as key to the progress.

But much uncertainty remains. Susan Eklund-Leen, a professor of cooperative education, said that faculty members -- who were all told in June that they were would be out of jobs at the end of the academic year -- are "relieved," but full of questions. "Lots of work must be done to repair the damage."

She said that professors now understand that "downsizing will have to happen." Some faculty members are seeking jobs elsewhere, others may retire, and a few have offered to take extended leaves if they can be assured of their positions at some point in the future. Committees are planning to start work today, she said, on the future of the college. "It will be very difficult because we will likely be planning people out of a job."

How many people will lose jobs? No one knows, but that may depend on enrollment plans, which are a major source of controversy. Currently, Antioch College has 270 to 285 students, with somewhere between 70 and 90 expected to graduate in the spring. Mary Lou LaPierre, vice chancellor and chief spokeswoman for the university administration, said that the board believes it would be wrong to recruit new first-year students until facilities are fixed up and academic programs are improved. "We need to take a look at the curriculum, with some concern that the curriculum is not attractive enough to attract enough students," she said. Time will be needed to plan those changes and for "market testing," LaPierre said.

While she said she didn't know how long it would take to be able to recruit freshmen, she said that it would be impossible this fall.

Jeanne Kay, co-editor of The Record, the student newspaper, said she was "very disappointed" in the agreement. She asked how faculty jobs could be cut when most departments have one professor. And if enrollment shrinks without new freshmen, she said she was worried that professors would disappear.

"We are already running at minimum operations," she said. "If a professor of political science takes a job somewhere else, I don't have a major anymore," she said. "I wish this announcement could be something to celebrate, but it's not."

Many Antioch College supporters are circulating an analysis of the situation by Robert Devine, a former president of the college. In his take, he said that with the funds raised by alumni, there is no need to keep financial exigency, and that keeping it damages the college. The university board will have "power and control" and tenure will not really count, he wrote. He also said that the state of financial exigency will make it difficult to recruit students or faculty members as the board seems to stress "the tentativeness of the college's existence."

The financial exigency hurts fund raising as would-be donors will fear that gifts will "get devoured by deficit funding," he said. And professors can't play a real role in planning because "the financial exigency puts them on notice."

Tim Noble, an alumnus who has been critical of the board, said he was very upset that the chancellor retains the board's support and that students won't be recruited. "They are being overly hesitant" on recruiting, he said. "What is a college without students?"

The plan seems to be similar to the suspension plan, he said, except alumni must provide more money now. "This seems like a corporate cover-your-ass plan" for the trustees, he said.

Nancy Crow, president of the alumni board, said she believed that trustees moved "a long, long way." While she understood the concern about not recruiting freshmen, she said she understood the decision -- and believed some new transfer students would be enrolled. Crow said she understood the concerns about professors' jobs, but didn't feel that there were other good options.

"We have a wonderful and grossly underpaid faculty, but the creation of new programs will require the financial exigency to remain in place," she said. "Sadly, not all faculty will remain."

LaPierre, the university vice chancellor, said that it shouldn't be a surprise that the plan doesn't make everyone happy in every way. "All good agreements leave all of the parties feeling as though they didn't get everything they wanted," she said.

As for the distrust of the chancellor, LaPierre said: "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that she wants a strong, thriving, healthy, fiscally sustainable college with terrific facilities, a marketable curriculum and the opportunity to provide students with a great undergraduate education."

Noble said he and other alumni would be watching and considering their options -- and, in the best Antioch tradition, challenging policies they find to be misguided. "Do I feel somewhat betrayed? Yes. Do I feel bitter? Yes," he said. "That's part of the Antioch experience."

 

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